Making Korean food by myself. No recipes. Just memories.
By Kathleen Choe (actor/singer/writer)
Chapter 1: Bulgalbi
When I was a junior in college, I moved into an apartment with an amazing kitchen that inspired me to cook. A craving for kimchi chigae came
and my roommates enthusiastically agreed to have some (since there was no way I could eat the whole pot by myself). Having watched my parents make it, I felt confident I knew how to do it on my own.
Cut to me on the phone wailing to my Dad that despite me having simmered the chigae for an hour and the pork belly in it falling apart, my kimchi wasn’t getting soft.
“Did you fry the kimchi in sesame oil first?” my father asked patiently. “You have to do that first. If you didn’t, put some in the chigae now. Then it’ll get soft. Put it in now and simmer for five...no, ten minutes. Also, your roommates don’t mind the smell?”
“They love it,” I replied frantically, grabbing the sesame oil and putting it in the stew. Ten minutes later as promised the kimchi softened, and the spicy stew goodness was spooned into bowls and fed to me and my hungry roommates.
Years later I’m now on my umpteenth apartment with no roommates, making dinner for my friend Terri for a girl’s night catch up. Nothing very fancy or what people usually order in a restaurant—no chapjae or bibimbap (which for the record, is a pain in the ass to make) to be seen here--just a stock of old home favorites.
OK, so I lied. I’m also making bulgalbi. But it’s a “family coming over” dinner, so that’s allowed. There has to be some kind of meat on the table, otherwise it’s just an everyday family dinner.
The Korean market near where I live charges Manhattan prices for beef, so like a good New Yorker shopping for the best deal I head over a few blocks to the Chinese market after picking up what I need from the Korean one. The man behind the butcher counter looks at me expectantly.
“Two pounds of short ribs.”
He grabs two large racks of beef.
“Two pounds! Not two racks.”
He asks me a question in Cantonese. I blink at him blankly. His partner behind the counter comes over and takes one of the racks out of his hands, laughing.
“Square cut?” the second butcher says to me.
I shake my head, but I smile. He's guessed I'm Korean. “Sliced ¼”, please.”
I take it home and wash the beef, put it in a large metal bowl, then start following my parents' instructions in my head.
No recipe. Just memories.
Soy sauce…check. Black pepper…check. Sesame oil…check. Scallions…check.
Garlic…here the voices diverge.
Mom: Just add a little.
Dad: Ugh! NO! No garlic.
I love garlic, so I chop up four cloves and throw them in. I can hear my father’s grumbles over this addition and my mother’s cackles at having won.
Dad: Sprinkle it over the meat, like this. Like snow! An inch of snow.
I stare at the sugar. The health-conscious part of my brain rebels. Oh, hell no. That’s wayyyyy too much.
I add a quarter-inch, then start massaging it all together with my hands. I taste it. It doesn’t taste like theirs. OK, a little more soy sauce. A llllliiiiiiiitlllle more sugar. I taste it again. Getting closer, but I can’t bring myself to add more.
I realize also that this is the first time I’m making this without an older family member hanging over my shoulder making adjustments.
I text my sister.
Me: I’m making kalbi and realizing just how much ganjang (soy sauce) and sugar Dad uses. Jesus. This is why so many Korean people have high blood pressure.
Sissy: An inch of snow!
I laugh, and add a little more sugar and soy sauce, and massage it in the beef. I consider adding a kiwi—my mother’s trick to making it nice and tender—but decide against it. Also, if I leave it in the marinade too long the beef will turn to mush, and it’ll be twelve hours before any of this goes into the oven.
I wrap the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. The next day I take it out, heat up the oven and place the meat inside. 15 minutes in, and my apartment starts smelling delicious. I open the oven and flip the meat, and aroma of the beef mixed with the steaming rice coming from the rice cooker makes me smile.
Terri arrives and I pull out the bulgalbi, placing it on a plate and cutting it into pieces with scissors, leaving the bones in. We make room for it by rearranging dishes on the table.
Terri eyes the plate of bones-in bulgalbi. “How do we eat them?”, she asks.
“We’re all family here,” I say. I pick up a piece of bulgalbi with my fingers and bite.
My heart sinks. It doesn’t taste like theirs. There’s something missing. The flavors are the same, but overall it’s not as pungent. More soy sauce? More sugar?
An inch of snow.
Terri’s takes a bite too, and a huge grin comes over her face. “Soooo good!”
She reaches for another piece. Bit by bit we polish off this dinner, and my friends who drop by later for the dessert portion of the evening finish off the rest of the bulgalbi.
My Dad is happy when he makes a meal and all the plates at the end of the meal are empty. The plate of bulgalbi that I made is empty, inch of snow notwithstanding. So there’s that.
I notice the next day too that I’m not as bloated as I usually am after eating a big Korean dinner. So there’s that, too.
Maybe there’s something to be said for modifying family recipes and making them more health conscious. My family has a history of high blood pressure. I’m firmly determined to break that.
An inch of snow.
Wonder what my parents would say if I used Stevia instead…